Mary-Claire King is one of the most important biomedical researchers of the last half century. King is best known for her discovery of the BRCA gene family, now used as a vital diagnostic tool for breast cancer risk. The BRCA gene saga is pivotal in understanding the role of intellectual property in biomedicine. Shortly after King’s discovery, Myriad Genetics, a company out of the University of Utah, sequenced the genes and filed patents for them. Myriad locked up use of these genes for years (until the Supreme Court invalidated the patents), slowing research and preventing countless women from gaining access to tests that used the genes. If you’re a proponent of the public owning the results of public-funded research, the BRCA gene story is a textbook case, one that makes clear that access to the papers written about the results is small potatoes compared with access to the results themselves.

King is a remarkable figure, leading the fight against the patenting of genes, as well as applying genetic techniques to identify victims of human rights abuses. She has led a fascinating life, filled with some of the most amazing stories, one of which you’ll see in the short video below. It starts off with the worst week of her life, as she struggled to get to Washington to secure the grant that would lead to the BRCA discoveries. From there, it eventually runs into a completely unexpected punchline that continues to blow my mind.

For more about King, see also this in depth interview conducted by her colleague Evan Eichler. Great stuff.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


5 Thoughts on "The Worst Week of Mary-Claire King's Life: An Amazing Tale from an Amazing Scientist"

Thank you for posting this, David. The moth story is rich with the dilemmas of a modern woman in the sandwich generation feeling the pulls of parent, child, and career. The extended interview shows a compassionate, brilliant, and brave person unfazed by military coups, corporate patents, and competitive pressure. Such a wonderful role model. And, as she says at the end of the long interview, there is more work to do…

I too would like to thank you for posting this. I am a Chilean and I live in Chile. I came back from the US in August 1973. I was 14 then and my father had been posted in the Chilean Embassy in Washington D.C. Hearing Mary-Claire’s testimony on the period before and after the coup is very important to me. I agree with the Carol Anne – Mary-Claire is a wonderful role model. Thank you again. We must never forget where we come from in order to see more clearly where we must go.

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